Skip to main content

Has America lost its mind? The decline of American thinking and education

Written by André Ken Jakobsson, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

America is losing its mind and as a consequence its ability to understand and act in international politics. The American preeminence of power is usually thought of as its foremost means of leverage in international relations. And usually this power is translated into the material threat of force available as a last resort. American power thus rhymes with the number of nuclear warheads, aircraft carriers and highly trained servicemen. However, when thinking about international politics, these capabilities take on a different meaning if they are understood through the Clausewitzian dictum of war being the continuation of politics with other means. Here politics comes before the means of war. This insight is at risk of being lost in the most important country in the world for formulating politics.

Sir Francis Bacon’s observation that knowledge is power, is in the contemporary American context not valued anymore. Yet, it should be - more than ever. One of the big, if perhaps the biggest, stumbling blocks of the Afghan and Iraq wars was the lack of knowledge about these societies in American foreign policy circles. Few had the required language and cultural skills that could have averted blatant mistakes in the handling of this unfamiliar region. 9/11 was a wake-up call but the lesson seems not to have been heard or at least not learned.

Charles King from Georgetown University points to an imminent failure in American funding for education and research in the areas that would provide this valuable knowledge. The humanities and liberal arts, language and culture, areas studies, philosophy and even special programs aimed as international politics are being reduced or simply closed down. The students are fleeing. The current tensions with Russia over Ukraine could be in desperate need of university educated experts.

These were actually being produced under the Title VIII program created in 1983, aimed at advanced language and cultural training on Russia and the former USSR. The program was shut down just one month before the Euromaidan revolution started in Ukraine. As King points out, the shutdown of the program saved $3,3 million dollars or the cost of two Tomahawk cruise missiles. It has now been reopened with less funding.

This seems to be the critical point in American priorities: Should the instruments of war, two missiles, be preferred over the ability to think, analyze and advice on either the prevention of war or the best way of conducting it? Charles King points out, that power is more than just economic or military superiority. The American rise to hegemony happened also because of “its unmatched knowledge of the hidden interior of other nations: their languages and cultures, their histories and political systems, their local economies and human geographies. Through programs such as Title VIII, the U.S. government created a remarkable community of minutemen of the mind: scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates who possessed the linguistic skills, historical sensitivity, and sheer intellectual curiosity to peer deeply into foreign societies. Policymakers sometimes learned to listen to them, and not infrequently, these scholars even became policymakers themselves.”

It is however not just a question of political priorities (money for guns, but no money for minds), it is also a question of the thoughts that are allowed to flourish and here King’s critique is addressed also at the practitioners of the mind: “Political scientists give up grappling with dilemmas of power and governance—the concerns of thinkers from Aristotle to Max Weber and Hans Morgenthau—and make their own pastiche of the natural sciences with careful hypotheses about minute problems. Being monumentally wrong is less attractive than being unimpor¬≠tantly right. Research questions derive almost exclusively from what has gone unsaid in some previous scholarly conversation. As any graduate student learns early on, one must first “fill a hole in the literature” and only later figure out whether it was worth filling.”

American power is much, much more than material force but it is a lesson that is about to be lost.

Read Charles King’s article over at Foreign Affairshere.

And you may also find Fareed Zakaria’s critiqueof the American obsession with science and technology interesting.